Ever spring, tarpon travel from Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, both coasts of Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas to meet in the Florida Keys to spawn. At least that’s what we think. No one has ever actually witnessed the spawning but some typical pre-spwan rituals have been recorded. During April May and June the Keys have more tarpon than anywhere else in the world. Huge numbers of fish, many days we see over 500 fish. Getting one of those to eat your fly is the challenge.
There are a few things working against us as sight fishing fly fishermen: Tarpon eat mostly at night, they eat mostly in the deeper channels; when we do see them in shallow water traveling on the ocean side of the keys, their primary goal is to find a mate or travel to the spot they believe will find their mate, eating is not on their mind; and there are hundreds of other fly fishermen presenting flies to them all day long. It is no wonder a 100 pound fish will occasionally spook at the sight of a well presented 2 inch long fly.
What can you do to improve your chances at one of these lazy eating giants? The biggest thing you can do is to hire the right guide. There are some trade secret flies that actually do work better than what you find in stores, those secret flies are guarded even between guides. There are so many variables that go into a successful hookup: the tide; the current; the time of day; fly pattern, reading the fish, the temperament of the fish; the line leader combination; the cast; enticing that fish to eat; setting the hook; and finally fighting it hard.
In general I see more hookups in the early morning or late afternoon, if you guide wants to get out at 7 am, trust him, if he wants to start late so you can fish till sunset, trust him. It is certainly easier to see the fish at high noon but they are also the most skittish at that time. The effective tides are different on every flat but moving water will get them moving out into the shallows. You can’t do anything about the temperament of a fish, some fish will present a body language that indicates it is relaxed and happy, willing to eat, others will be a little deeper, faster or too straight of a line of travel. Your guide can tell which fish have the best chance of eating. Not that the deeper faster darker fish never eat it is just almost never. We can’t control the temperament, but we still have to take a shot if there is not a happy fish nearby. In fact the only thing we control is the fly, the leader/line and the presentation and strip. Since the most effective fly will come from your guide we don’t even control that. Even the rod, reel, leader and line will be provided by the guide as they prefer to know you have the right tackle.
Pretty much that leaves you with presentation. Here is where you need to learn things before you head out for your first tarpon. There is an art and feel to putting the fly in the right place. A laid up fish floating on the surface needs that fly to land softly a foot in front of it and maybe 6 inches past it, gently wiggle the fly into the center of its vision. He will either spook instantly or wiggle awake.. and eat OMG! The first rule is I believe a tarpon needs to see a fly with 2 eyes, make the same cast 6 inches to your side of the fish and your chances plummet. Their eyes are on the sides of their head which gives then a very narrow window where they can see something with both eyes. The seem to like to see food with one eye then the other. You need to pass through that window, this means you need to cross the tarpons line of vision. Never throw it short.
A fast cruising ocean fish needs a different technique.. this fish must never sense the fly landing, they must never see the fly line and they must see it with two eyes for as long as possible. To keep them from sensing the landing of the fly you can lead a fish by 30 feet. Many anglers aim at what they think is 30 feet but with 4 false casts and a moving fish that 30 foot lead is now zero and it hits the tarpon in the head. (tarpon don’t like that) It needs to LAND way way in front of him. The other reason it needs to land way out in front is you want to cast it too far and slide the fly into the line of the fish. ( remember 2 eyes) so a cast that ends up landing just short ( even by inches) will only be viewed out of his near eye, your chance dwindle. Without a lead you do not have time for this line adjustment, and the tarpon may see the fly line as you slide the fly where you want it. This long lead will mean you cast in the wrong direction occasionally as the fish changes directions. A long lead gives you some chance of taking a second shot.
The angle of the shot you take with a cruising tarpon is extremely important, I like a sweet 45 degree shot and sometimes even a 90 degree shot ( especially fishing worms) Those beauties that swim right at the boat are just a little awkward to get a proper two eyed shot, invariably it will end up just a few inches to the left or right just off on one eye. If they do eat then they usually don’t turn on the fly they open suck it in and your first strip pops the fly right back out again ( occasionally the fish will eat it again!). Sometimes you just can’t get away from this angle so you take it anyway working the fly very slow as him swims up near it gradually speeding up matching his speed as it gets into his strike zone. The longer it stays on that 3 foot cone in front of him the better. Let him eat and wait on the hook set ( I still can’t do this!) till he changes direction, maybe stomp on the boat or he will finally start to know something is wrong and will try to expel the fly ( usually with some head shakes) strip it then, and hope he turns away from you!
Second shots: If you have a choice never throw at the same fish twice! All too often an angler will get fixated on the lead fish taking a second shot at that fish ( with an increasingly lousy angle) rather than looking back in the school and choosing a fish with a better angle. Once that lead fish is past the others will be less spooky. One trick with a long school and a 45 -90 degree shot is to let the first fish get into casting range and throw the leader and fly over the tail of the first fish and feed it to another fish down the line. If that one doesn’t eat, pick up and throw it over the tail of another fish further back in the line. I have seen lines that take 3 minutes to go by affording 10-15 shots! Usually it is the #1 cast that is most effective, sometimes it is the 15th.
Now that you have the fly in the right place what do you do with it? Make him eat it…Visualize it… make him believe it is just to easy and yummy to pass up. This is the art part, some fish need just a tickle of a stationary fly, some need some teasing with fast and slow strips just a head of him to flick the switch, some want a slow long strip to light them up. I wish I could tell you one always works. Some flies ( like a Toad) work well going very slowly, they do not sink fast and have a lot of life without stripping much, other more baitfish specific patterns need a more jumpy strip, others like a worm pattern like a smooth non bumpy strip. Make him eat… be one with the fish.
Listen to your guide. Listening to your guide while 30 80-100 pound fish swim towards you is harder than you think. You are looking at a fish that the guide knows won’t eat and he sees a happy one 20 feet behind and to the side, he tells you where to cast and you can’t hear what he said.. you cast to the non biter that you have on your radar.
Hooking and fighting that fish will have to wait till another day… it is all about the take anyway! I am off fishing!